A North Queensland farmer fears the state government’s snap decision to turn off the tap to a major river tributary will damage both his crop and the Great Barrier Reef. 

Tony Jeppesen said while a closure of the O’Connell River was expected, the move was made weeks earlier than in other years, blindsiding growers and leaving them unable to water newly planted crops.

The Bloomsbury-based farmer said this could put he and others in violation of laws requiring them to prevent environmental run-off. 

“I’ve already contacted the Department of Environment and told them I’ll be in breach,” he said.

“I can’t do anything about it because of the conditions the local [department] office has placed on us.  

“It could cost jobs, it’s going to cost the environment, it’s a stupid decision.”  

A department spokesperson, however, said irrigators should have foreseen the ban and were given reasonable notice to stop taking water from the river and its tributaries in the Whitsundays.

Communication breakdown

Mr Jeppesen grows sugar cane and broadacre crops across four properties that use water from the O’Connell tributary and employs about 12 people. 

“It takes months to plan our cropping programs; we try to get a couple of cover crops in, it’s great for our soil biology and soil structure, and in one week they’ve destroyed that,” he said.

“I’ve just planted 46 hectares of cover crops … finished Friday afternoon, [and now] we can’t actually water them, so they’ll die.”

The government spokesperson said irrigators were notified of limitations on August 6 by letter and notification on its website. 

Mr Jeppesen said his letter did not arrive until August 18. 

a rocky creek with some water in it
Mr Jeppesen says restrictions on irrigation have come earlier than ever before.(Supplied: Tony Jeppersen)

Under the restrictions, he is permitted to water three nights a week — Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 

He finalised planting on Friday, fertilised and set up irrigation systems over the weekend with plans to water Monday evening as per restrictions, but received a call on Monday from his local Canegrowers branch informing him that all irrigation was now banned. 

On Tuesday, Mr Jeppesen received a text from the department confirming the ban. 

It was not the first time Mr Jeppesen had issues with not knowing when allocations had changed, and said the website was not a reliable way to get information to farmers.  

“It’s like them putting in a stupid website somewhere that no-one can see and saying there’s now a 50-kilometre speed limit on the Bruce Highway and charging everyone the next day a big fine,” he said. 

Between a rock and a hard place

The effort to protect the health of the O’Connell River system is not what frustrates Mr Jeppesen.

“We’re not saying we shouldn’t be on restrictions, we’re saying they have to be incorporated in a way that doesn’t do environmental damage to the system,” he said.

“They have to be incorporated in a way that works with landholders. 

“[Now the crops are planted], there’s legislative requirements in the sugar industry we have to comply with, so I must water some products in so there’s less chance of [soil and fertiliser] moving.” 

Mr Jeppesen said that in previous years when more warning was given, restrictions increased incrementally from nights only to five and then three nights a week, before a week’s warning was issued ahead of a total water ban. 

Amanda Camm, the LNP member for the Whitsundays, said she had written to Water Minister Glenn Butcher requesting an urgent audit of the system. 

“Information that the department makes decisions on should always be transparent,” she said.

“Growers pay for these allocations, they pay for water licensing; I think it’s upon the department to always be upfront and share information as soon as it comes to hand.” 

Ms Camm also said she was concerned for the lose-lose position growers now faced. 

“The challenge the state government has delivered to farmers is what decision do they make?

“Do they take water they’re not meant to take to make sure they comply with legislation around run-off, around reef regulations, or do they plough it into the ground also risking that they may not comply with legislation?” 

Mr Butcher’s office declined to comment.

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